What attracted you to a career in improv/comedy?
I never wanted a career in comedy, especially improv. I am a practical person at heart, and theater, as we all know, is not the place to build a stable life from.
I was specifically attracted to this job with Curious Comedy Theater because it was a unicorn of a job. Being able to do administrative work (which I love) combined with teaching, coaching, and performing was a collection of all the things I dreamt about but never thought could actually be in one job. If it was not for Curious, I’d still be working at a bankruptcy law firm doing improv as a side hobby.
What was most intimidating about getting into improv? Have you overcome that?
I have major imposter syndrome. My improv journey is not the norm. I didn’t go to Second City. I didn’t do UCB. I didn’t take part in a school and train with them. I fell into improv because of the Miss Alaska Pageant.
I was looking for a scholarship, and my friend Stephany, who was Miss Alaska at the time, suggested I do the pageant. The top 10 get scholarships—and usually only 10 girls compete in Alaska—so I figured what the heck!
Stephany involved me in her pageant community work so I could start putting in volunteer hours. Her platform? Improv to Improve. She, along with several other theater majors and myself, stumbled through “Truth in Comedy” by Charna Halpern, trying to learn improv through a book.
Fast forward, I won Miss Congeniality that year, and Stephany and I were offered an after-hours workshop slot teaching improv at the Last Frontier Theater Conference. Of course we jumped at the chance and flew down to Valdez. By day we read new works written by upcoming playwrights and by night we taught improv.
Now I should mention—I had recently been accepted to the California Institute of the Arts for my Masters degree in Acting. While I was at this conference, I was introduced to a playwright who was also attending CalArts and who also loved improv. His name is Yichao.
He’ll say that, when we met, he thought I had been doing improv for years and had training. Nothing could be further from the case. So without even asking about my background, he invited me to be part of his musical improv troupe at CalArts—I’m not a musical person.
But, I wanted to fit in and prove that I could do it. So Yichao and I did improv all throughout our grad years. In my final year, we entered the National Improv College Tournament. There were only three of us at the time, and we named our trio “Tall Grande Venti.”
We won our region so that meant we had to go to Chicago for the national competition, where we also won. That meant getting accepted to all these improv festivals. And these festivals had veterans of improv—people who had been doing it for years and years. I remember even then thinking, “Do they know we’re not trained?”
All of that is to say, I guess I haven’t overcome imposter syndrome at all. I just keep shoving it to the side.
Teamwork is often essential to improv. How do you mold your style to other people’s strengths or weaknesses while on stage?
I think it’s just listening and responding. Making sure that whatever you do highlights your partner and makes them look good.
What motivates you in this industry? How do you remain positive and focused?
I love improv. It’s different every time and requires you to be constantly learning. I don’t always stay positive because I have my moods like everyone else. But if I am in a mood, usually the joy of my teammates elevates me out of myself.
How do you evaluate your success on stage? Within the field at large?
I’m pretty harsh on myself. There’s always a move I could have done cleaner, a relationship I could have made stronger. The way I immediately evaluate is, “Do I feel happy?” “Does my team feel happy?” If yes, we focus on what made us feel supported and strong. If not, we talk about moves that made us feel unsure or unsafe. Since it’s an artform, it’s very subjective. What some people may like, others may hate.
As a women in acting and comedy, how do you experience the field differently than a male might? Is sexism present?
I’m stupid lucky. I got into improv by Miss Alaska, I was given my first improv job by a woman, and I was hired here by Stacey Hallal. All strong, amazing women who continually provide an environment where equality is the reality.
My trio, Tall Grande Venti, had two guys on it. My best friends. During our time together they were much more passionate about women’s rights than I ever was. They always checked in with me. They always kept me safe.
Sexism is definitely present. So is racism. We all have these stereotypes hidden in our stomachs, and oftentimes during improv we vomit them up. Oftentimes the person knows what they did was inappropriate and will feel so awful and apologetic. Sometimes the person doesn’t know, so at Curious we encourage our students to speak up if something is upsetting. We don’t know your boundaries. Be your advocate. We’ll support you.
For a good example—a student recently emailed me about a game that was racist as it pulled from Asian stereotypes. Immediately we changed the game and our whole community was on board and supportive. Nobody argued or got offended. We accepted their reality and changed accordingly to make sure they felt safe and supported.
Thinking back over your career to date, what has been your greatest accomplishment?
Getting this job?! I feel there have been many accomplishments, but each one keeps getting better so I think my greatest accomplishment will be my next one.
What are some acting weaknesses you have? How do you overcome or work on those?
It’s like playing a game of whack a mole. After I fix one element, another pops up. Currently I’m focused on not being so weird on stage. Which wasn’t a problem before, but now is. Ugh. Nothing is ever perfect.
I work on my weaknesses by bringing awareness before I rehearse. I say to myself, “Sarah, try and do one scene where you aren’t weird,” and then I build from there.
When I’m biking home, I’ll talk to myself. Give myself notes. Practice moments of scenes over again so that I “do them correctly” or whatever my goal was.
Do you think there’s a “type” of person who’s typically attracted to improv acting? Do you think there’s a “type” of person who’s typically successful at it?
No and no. Everyone can be successful at improv because ultimately it’s about celebrating who you are and who your teammates are, and how—no matter our differences—we can create something together in agreeance and understanding.
On stage, is it easier to play a character or to be yourself?
Play a character for sure. I love weird and fun characters. I love picking a person out and blowing up their characteristics on stage. It’s my way of connecting with people and the world. By playing a character, I become sympathetic and more understanding.
Any pet peeves about this line of work?
Flaky people! Oftentimes group attendance is abysmal—which is frustrating, cause HOW DO YOU GET BETTER? It’s a ridiculous notion that you’ll get better at something if you don’t put time and effort into it.
Who’s the most talented well-known actor or actress who incorporates improve within their work?
Amy Poehler. Straight up my hero. I love her and her work.
What’s the last thing you do before you step out on stage? Any rituals?
Every cast member at Curious will lightly touch each other’s back or shoulder and say, “I’ve got your back.” My interpretation of this small act is that, no matter what happens, my teammates will support my choices.
What would you want to say to other women or young girls interested in improv and comedy?
Be patient with yourself and don’t be intimidated by dick jokes.
You guys—women, men, whoever. You MUST go check out Curious Comedy Theater for yourself. I plan on doing just that tonight. I bought Brandon and myself tickets for the All Jane Comedy Festival because after sitting down with Sarah and getting to know her a bit, I got incredibly excited (and curious!) about seeing women who are rocking it in the world of acting and comedy.
Also big shoutout to Kopi East Asian Coffee House for not kicking us out during this shoot—and for the incredibly delicious coffee. At 7:30 a.m., we needed it.
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